London, 15 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Two London-based charities have announced emergency plans to get food, fuel and medical aid to orphanages in Bulgaria, in a bid to save thousands of malnourished children from dying of cold and hunger this Winter. Robert Edwards, national director of one of the charities, the Christian Children's Fund, said in London last night that Bulgaria's "ruined economy" has caused a surge in the number of children abandoned by parents and left to languish in the orphanages.
By one estimate, there are 34,000 Bulgarian children in the state-run institutions, which are afflicted by "squalid" conditions, a lack of qualified staff and chronic underfunding. British aid workers say that most of the children were put in the orphanages because their parents couldn't afford to keep them - a pattern that has emerged across the former communist countries.
Catherine Stevens, of the European Children's Trust, the second British charity helping in Bulgaria, told our correspondent today: "It's not that people want to abandon their children. But when the price of bread triples, you lose your job, and you need extra money for fuel, the state orphanages offer the only form of support. All these countries (in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union) share the heritage of Communism - inadequate safety nets to provide for poor and vulnerable families who are most in need." The crisis of abandoned children has struck with particular force in Bulgaria recently, because of its severe economic crisis.
The squalid state of Bulgaria's orphanages was highlighted by a BBC television team who filmed the conditions in these institutions last October. Two news documentaries were shown on British national television, prompting offers of cash and practical support. Charitable appeals have already raised more than $250,000 for the Bulgarian children, and it was announced yesterday that the British Government will donate another $250,000. The crisis prevention program by the Christian Children's Fund and the European Children's Trust will aim at helping vulnerable children in the orphanages and their families to survive this Winter.
The project will target the poorest people with particular emphasis on disadvantaged ethnic minorities and disabled children.
It will train Bulgarian orphanage staff so that improved care will help children who cannot return home in the forseeable future. In the long term, the program will replace state orphanages with day-care centers, fostering services, outreach social-work programs, and parent group networks. Stevens said: "The aim is to help families over difficult times and to keep them together."
The European Children's Trust is pressing the Sofia government to adopt legal reforms aimed at promoting family-based care.
Stevens says Romania (where conditions in state orphanages, post-Ceausescu, shocked the outside world) provides a model for recent child care laws aimed at ending the institutionalization of children, and keeping them with their natural parents.
The European Children's Trust, which began work in Romania in 1990, has been invited by Bucharest to help implement the new legislation. The British charity has recently expanded its work, not only in Bulgaria but also in Albania and Macedonia, and is now considering moving into Bosnia. Stevens said: "We also have plans to go into the former Soviet Union: the problem of abandoned children is the same everywhere in the former Communist countries."